The global events occurring in the spring and summer of 2020 have ushered issues of racial discrimination and inequity into the foreground of social discourse. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted historically marginalised populations and highlighted pre-existing inequalities, Scotland is no exception. The subsequent murder of George Floyd by police in the United States ignited a Black Lives Matter movement around the world. If Scotland wishes to be a global leader in human rights, they must start by ensuring that any future rights incorporation will benefit everyone equally, regardless of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin. An effective incorporation of the rights and obligations the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) would be a firm step in this direction. This blog examines why a thorough incorporation of ICERD into domestic law is a necessary next step for Scotland in eliminating racial discrimination.
Access to Remedy:
ICERD demands effective remedies for Convention breaches. While the Equality Act 2010 is meant to provide this access to remedy, there are a number of factors which inhibit its effectiveness in addressing racial discrimination. To begin, the Act and its related Public Sector Equality Duties (PSEDs) in Scotland have a heavy bend towards gender-based discrimination. This focus is then reflected in the respective success rates of gender-based discrimination claims in comparison to racial-discrimination claims.
There are also a number of barriers which might prevent historically marginalised demographics from accessing justice. Such barriers might be economic, meaning not only that they cannot afford litigation, but also that they might not be able to get the time off of work to attend hearings. Depending on the demographic, these barriers might also include language and literacy. Additionally, those who have experienced an intersectional form of discrimination must choose to file under one category or both. This is problematic as intersectional discrimination is not merely additive. Instead, the forms of discrimination endured are distinct from those experienced by an individual who has only one such identity. For example, a woman of colour will experience discrimination that is distinct from the discrimination experienced by white women or by men of colour.
The underlying objective of ICERD is that access to, and quality of rights protections must be equal for everyone regardless of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin. ICERD and the corresponding work of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) together address many of the aforementioned barriers. Due to the broad nature of the Convention’s articles there is likely to be debate surrounding enforceability, particularly with relation to economic, social and cultural rights. But much work has been done on the ways in which a balance might be struck which acknowledges resource realities while also reaping the many benefits of adequately protecting these rights. Further concerns about an unmanageable number of cases has been addressed through the suggestion of using test cases to manage consistent or common rights violations.
Mandated Adherence by Public Actors: While access to remedy has a key role in effective human rights protection, in an ideal world litigation would not be necessary as public and private actors would not be engaging in discriminatory behaviour. By incorporating human rights into domestic law, the government would signal to public and private actors that Scotland is moving towards increased accountability for actions which directly, or indirectly amount to racial discrimination.
Incorporation as a Public Commitment:
Committing to the incorporation of a human rights treaty, particularly an incorporation which is both full and direct, demonstrates a firm commitment to the rights and obligations contained in that treaty. The Scottish commitment to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has demonstrated the potential for such a commitment. It has generated widespread engagement with civil society, academics, public officials, and even the private sector.This demonstrates substantial potential for incorporation to be utilised as an awareness raising tool which might initiate the decisive societal shift that the Scottish government has acknowledged as necessary to achieve racial equity. Such commitment to incorporating human rights treaties through various methods also substantiates the Scottish Government’s asserted objective to be a global leader in human rights.
Taking a Holistic Approach to Tackling Racial Discrimination:
Although the Scottish Race and Equality Framework and Action Plan also acknowledge the need for these actions, as policy the Framework is subject to changes in politics. Alternatively, incorporation would cement these rights and obligations into law which contributes to sustainable change by mandating adherence. For example, in Colombia which has incorporated human rights through its constitution, the compliance mechanism for human rights violations enables courts to order public authorities to uphold their obligations. Yet, even changes to the law cannot achieve sustainable change on their own.
Scotland’s Public Sector Equality Duties (PSEDs) demonstrate the potential to use legislation to ensure that public institutions are considering the potential discriminatory effects of their actions. But these duties also provide an excellent example of the fact that effectively addressing inequity requires the combined efforts of law, policy, and practice. For example, understanding racial discrimination requires gathering accurate, up to date and disaggregated data to inform solutions. Ensuring the sustainability of rights protections requires training public officials and law enforcement agencies. Effective engagement with historically marginalised communities requires establishing a relationship of trust, for which a key component is acknowledgement of the wrongs committed against that group in the past. Although an incorporation of ICERD would focus on the legal aspect, it has the potential to also serve as a catalyst which ignites the needed corresponding changes to both policy and practice.
Incorporating ICERD would require a thorough re-examination of racial discrimination and inequality in all areas of Scottish life. Through a societal review with such depth and breadth as would be required by a genuine incorporation of ICERD, Scotland might begin to identify and eradicate an issue as deeply entrenched and systemic as racial discrimination.
This post is by Emma Sullivan who is currently reading the LLM in Human Rights at Edinburgh Law School. She is a US qualified lawyer.